IOWA CAUCUS 2020

University of Northern Iowa pushes practice for high-profile caucuses

'It is a civic responsibility we encourage our students to take seriously'

Students participate in the Jan. 25, 2016, presidential mock caucus in the Mauker Union Ballrooms at the University of N
Students participate in the Jan. 25, 2016, presidential mock caucus in the Mauker Union Ballrooms at the University of Northern Iowa. UNI will host the mock caucus again this Monday, in advance of the statewide presidential caucus on Feb. 3. (Photo courtesy of Scott Peters)

A week before hundreds of thousands of Iowans descend upon nearly 1,700 precincts for the much-anticipated first-in-the-nation caucuses, the University of Northern Iowa will hold a mock event aimed at educating electoral newcomers on a complicated and sometimes intimidating process.

Although any member of the public is welcome to participate in UNI’s non-partisan mock caucus at 7 p.m. Monday in the Mauker Union Ballrooms — in advance of the Feb. 3 real deal — UNI political science professor Scott Peters said it’s aimed at upping student engagement.

“The idea is to get students — both Democrats and Republicans — the knowledge and comfort and tools to be able to walk into the caucus and participate and know what’s going to happen,” said Peters, who heads UNI’s Political Science Department.

UNI already has a politically savvy student body, earning it statewide and national notoriety.

In September 2018, the Cedar Falls campus received a Silver Seal award in the country’s ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge for its student-voting rate of nearly 68 percent — recognition retroactive for the 2016 election.

That rate earned UNI a spot among the nation’s top campuses — coming in nearly 18 points above the national average.

For the lower-profile 2018 midterm elections, UNI earned a Gold Seal award for its 46 percent voter turnout — the best among Iowa’s public universities and just behind Drake University’s 52 percent for highest college campus rate in the state.

Across more than 1,000 campuses that participated in national study, the average 2018 voting rate was about 40 percent — representing a massive spike in college-aged interest generally, as the 2014 rate was 20 percentage points lower at 19 percent, according to Iowa Campus Compact.

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UNI’s 2018 voting rate experienced a 17 percentage point jump from 2014. And Peters said his department is hopeful next week’s mock caucus continues that upward trend in student interest and participation.

“We have an engaged campus and students, who take their civic responsibility seriously,” he told The Gazette. “With increased effort and coordination, we could do even better.”

This year’s mock caucus is not UNI’s first, but Peters said organizers are hoping for a bigger turnout — around 150, up from the 75 to 100 participants in years past.

Organizers of the UNI event will run mock caucuses for both the Democratic and Republic parties, as rules differ significantly. Further complicating the Democratic process, which already is more involved, are changes to this year’s process, Peters said.

“We will follow those procedures and show samples of the forms and explain how the delegates and preferences get translated,” he said.

Those details about choosing delegates to the county convention and developing party platforms might surprise some students, in that caucus headlines focus on the process of selecting presidential nominees, Peters said.

“We want to make sure that students understand the caucuses have multiple purposes,” he said.

Students at the mock event also will learn how to find their caucus site and register the night of the actual caucuses — as Peters said that might be the best bet at this late stage. Although UNI’s mock event is nonpartisan, representatives from campus campaigns will host tables for students to gather last-minute information about candidates.

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Sponsored by the UNI Department of Political Science, American Democracy Project and UNI Student Government, the mock caucus event will work with a #PanthersCaucus social media awareness campaign leading up to Feb. 3.

“How do #PanthersCaucus? By practicing of course,” according to one recent post on Twitter from UNI’s College of Social & Behavioral Sciences promoting the mock event.

“The precinct caucuses afford us a unique opportunity,” said Justin Holmes, associate professor of political science and director of UNI’s chapter of the American Democracy Project. “It is important to recognize caucuses are more than just signaling support for a candidate; they are a key element in grassroots party governance. It is a civic responsibility we encourage our students to take seriously.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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